Sweeping horror into the light
INTERVIEW:Elliot Perlman drew from his family history in his novel, ‘The Street Sweeper’, about the pain people carry after living through dark times
‘ONLY SOME stories survive to become history,” declares the tagline on the cover of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper. The novel – all 500-plus pages of it – explores the tangled and often awkward relationship between facts and fiction.
Lamont Williams, a young African-American man who has just been released from prison, gets a job as a janitor at one of New York’s most prestigious cancer hospitals. One of the patients whose rubbish bin he empties on a daily basis is a frail elderly man called Mr Mandelbrot.
Williams has his own problems. He’s trying to reconnect with his estranged girlfriend and their daughter. He’s worried that if he’s caught hanging out with wealthy cancer patients, he’ll get the sack. Nevertheless he listens, fascinated and horrified, to the story the old man has to tell. Mandelbrot is a cantankerous storyteller. He makes Williams repeat the salient details back to him, in order to be certain that he’s listening attentively.
“Your father was a butcher. Sold meat on credit in hard times. Went bankrupt. You were the leader of a gang, the others were all Polish, you were the only Jew. You got no trouble, as a Jew, I mean?”
“Others did, yes. Not me. Maybe sometimes. If anyone called me a Jew I hit them . . .”
The Street Sweeper weaves together elements of history which we don’t normally see placed side by side. In a parallel strand of the story, a Jewish academic investigates a historical incident which links the Jewish experience of the Holocaust to the African-American civil-rights movement. It’s an angry book – as, indeed, were Perlman’s debut, Three Dollars, his story collection The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming and his 2004 novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, hailed as an Antipodean answer to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
One might be forgiven for expecting the author to be – in “real” life – a cross between an Old Testament prophet and Michael Moore. Instead, Perlman is a softly spoken, self-contained Australian who looks much younger than his 48 years. “It has been suggested to me that there’s a bit of a pattern there,” he says. “The first three books – even some of the short stories – all deal with injustice. Mainly economic injustice.”
His Jewish grandparents fled anti-Semitism in Poland and Russia in the late 1920s and settled in Melbourne. With such a family background it was almost inevitable that he would, at some point, write about the Holocaust. And when he spent a few years in New York, living opposite the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, with its teeming cast of patients, oncologists, researchers, library staff, visitors, janitors and who knows what else, he found the place where The Street Sweeper could plausibly begin.
A New York setting for a Holocaust novel? Does Perlman see himself as an Australian writer, or a Jewish writer? “I’m both,” he says. “I don’t want my storytelling to be proscribed by my ethnicity or the country I hail from. This is how I felt writing about black history. I’m not black. I’m not American, even. But if you’re a writer, I think you have an intellectual passport to stories all over the world.”
Along with this freedom to tell stories, however, comes an ethical obligation. Perlman says that some Holocaust novels make him “quite cross”.
“They’ve avoided the real history, and sanitised the story. I think that’s a grave mistake, to the point of being immoral. We’re getting very close to the time where people who are in control of narratives are the only people left to get this story across. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re a handful of years away from it. And with the passing of time and the disappearance of the survivors, the obligation becomes all the stronger.”
The stories of Holocaust survivors are not the whole story. “They’re always remarkable – by definition,” he says. “The average person got up in the morning, was put on a train and was killed. Transports were coming into Auschwitz-Birkenau day and night. The best-case scenario was that 70 per cent were killed within an hour or two, and 30 per cent were selected for slave labour. But what frequently happened was that they didn’t need any more slaves. They got them yesterday. So there’s no ‘go left, go right’, as in Sophie’s Choice. That, itself, was an exception. That hardly ever happened. Mostly it was, ‘I don’t care who you are; how strong you are; what you can do; what special skills you have’.”
Some of the most powerful passages in The Street Sweeper are those which take the reader right into the gas chambers: Perlman’s eloquent tribute to that silent 70 per cent.
Mr Mandelbrot, by contrast, is based on the story of a survivor Perlman met in Poland, Henryk Mandelbaum. “I feel very lucky to have got that interview,” he says. Mandelbaum, who was involved in the 1944 rebellion at Auschwitz-Birkenau that resulted in the destruction of one of the crematoria at the camp, has since died.
The uprising was orchestrated by members of the Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners who were forced to dispose of the bodies of those who had been killed – with the help of women who worked in the munitions factory. What was it like for Perlman to meet a member of the Sonderkommando?
“It was almost frightening,” he says. “Because you shook hands with him. And although there was a matter of six decades or so between the events he was describing and my meeting him, you still looked at the hand when you shook it. You knew something of what he had used those hands for; and you knew you were going to learn more. Through this apparently ordinary, sweet-looking, slightly pudgy, 80-something man I was getting a glimpse into the very darkest corner of the human heart.”
Perlman spent six years researching the book, visiting Auschwitz six times. “I broke down each time – at some stage,” he says. His Polish guide, Robert Nowak, became a friend. “He was employed by the Auschwitz State Museum and had been trained at Yad Vashem [the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust] in Jerusalem. So he knew all the details.
“We had visited the camp through all seasons. In the summer it was really hot – I mean, hot like an Australian summer. Another time, in the winter, we were standing near the remains of crematorium which had been burned down in the rebellion, and it started to snow, very gently. I said, ‘Well, it must have been like this then.’ And I added – almost to myself – ‘Now, it’s just snowflakes; but then, it would have mixed with ash.’
“And Robert said, ‘No.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean, no?’ And he said, ‘I know why you say that. You say it because you think you’ve seen it.’
“And I said ‘Yes. But I couldn’t have seen it – unless it was in Schindler’s List.’ And he said, ‘Yes. That’s a detail Spielberg put in. If you think about it, the ash made from human flesh would be too heavy to float this far. That didn’t happen.’”
Perlman insists on the importance of those details. “It was one of many things that Robert told me that you couldn’t get from a book. He kept encouraging me when I had self-doubts. I mean, I know that this story has to be told but I don’t know that I’m the writer to tell it. As you might be aware, Polish-Catholic and Polish-Jewish history is not always a happy story. There’s a long history of anti-Semitism there, and sadly, it’s not over.
“So to have this young Polish man encouraging me to tell this story as though it were his story . . . he made the point that these people, the Sonderkommando, should be treated as Polish heroes. Because they were Polish. They just happened to also be Jewish.”
To hear Perlman speak about these horrendous events in his calm Australian voice is an extraordinary experience. To read The Street Sweeper is a different, more difficult, experience. There’s a lot to take in. This is the complex, messy history Perlman has inherited: and he’s determined to pass it on in the best way he can, through telling complex, messy stories.
In the book, storytelling is not just an aesthetic pastime but an act of healing; when people listen to each other, good things happen. When they don’t, history goes, literally, to hell.
The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman, is published by Faber Faber, £14.99